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What Teams Might Sign Jimmy Graham?

What uniform will Graham be wearing in 2014?

What uniform will Graham be wearing in 2014?

On February 28th, the Saints elected to use the non-exclusive franchise tag on Jimmy Graham. The big dispute now is whether Graham should be classified as a tight end or a wide receiver; if Graham is classified as a tight end, the tag is worth $7.0 million, a number that jumps to $12.3 million if he’s labeled a wide receiver. An arbitrator will decide which position Graham plays for New Orleans, but it’s the type of tag the Saints used that’s interesting to me.

By using the non-exclusive tag, any team can sign Graham to a contract… provided such a team is willing to give up two first round draft picks to the Saints on top of the huge contract needed to lure Graham. On the surface, giving up so much capital for a tight end non-quarterback seems absurd, as the new Collective Bargaining Agreement has increased the value of rookies to a team. Players in their first four seasons contribute nearly half of all value provided by NFL players each season, and these players are now on very cheap contracts. As a result, teams should be even more hesitant to trade draft picks for players than they were before.

But that analysis doesn’t foreclose the idea that for a handful of teams, giving up picks for Graham could be a smart idea. And here’s something important to keep in mind: a team can sign Graham after the draft, giving up only 2015 and 2016 first round picks. We can all agree that there is some time value to draft picks; what does this mean for those future first round picks? Are they equivalent to a 2014 2nd and 2014 3rd? Well, probably not, but they’re not equal to two 2014 firsts, either.

Signing Graham would be a poor decision for most teams, but a team that meets several of these qualifications could justify the decision:

  • In a win-now window, i.e., a team that has a very good chance of winning a title in 2014 and 2015, and just an average chance down the road.
  • That would benefit specifically from harming the Saints
  • One offensive playmaker away from being a challenger
  • Expecting to have very good records in 2014 and 2015
  • In great salary cap shape, mitigating the impact of a large Graham contract

The Seahawks, with huge contracts on the horizon for Russell Wilson, Earl Thomas, and Richard Sherman, along with several others, are probably out of the mix because Seattle is not in great long-term cap shape. And for most teams, giving up two first round picks is just too much. But there are a few teams that might find this to be a very tempting move:

Atlanta Falcons

With Tony Gonzalez gone, Graham would be a natural fit to replace him. A dream scenario might be drafting Jadeveon Clowney and then signing Graham. This would hurt the Saints and put Atlanta in position to have a Matt RyanJulio Jones-Graham offense that would be posted to dominate for the rest of the decade. By adding Clowney and Graham, would the Falcons be Super Bowl contenders? The team still has holes, but this might be the sort of desperate move Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith need to ensure long-term job security.

Carolina Panthers

In 2013, Carolina had the second-oldest offense in the NFL (the Saints had the oldest); signing Graham would help ensure the long-term viability of the team as a Super Bowl contender.  Without adding Graham, the fate of the offense next year is already a question mark. Left tackle Jordan Gross has retired, Steve Smith is on the decline, DeAngelo Williams turns 31 in April and Greg Olsen turns 29 next week. The team desperately needs to give Cam Newton some offensive firepower, and Graham would fit that bill — and harm the team’s clearest rival to NFC South supremacy. Practically, fitting in Graham seems implausible, as Carolina can barely afford to keep Greg Hardy. But if the Panthers can make the cap magic work, Carolina would instantly become a top-three team in the league.

New York Jets

The Jets aren’t Super Bowl contenders — they’re a middle of the pack team — but this might be the move needed to save Rex Ryan’s job. The Jets are in excellent salary cap shape: once the Mark Sanchez, Santonio Holmes, and Antonio Cromartie contracts are off the books or reworked, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Nick Mangold, and David Harris will be the only players making more than $3.6M in 2014. And, by all accounts, this is the deepest wide receiver draft in years. The Jets offense has been hard to watch for years, but the team could add Graham, a top rookie receiver, and sign a wide receiver like Eric Decker, Golden Tate, Hakeem Nicks, or Emmanuel Sanders. Suddenly, a garbage offense with a rookie quarterback would be a talent-rich offense that would at least let the team see what they have in Geno Smith. The value in having a coach like Ryan is that he should be able to “coach up” a less-than-stellar defense, which would mitigate losing two future first round picks. But the Jets defense already has star pieces — Muhammad Wilkerson, Quinton Coples, Sheldon Richardson, Dee Milliner, and Damon Harrison — and adding three offensive weapons could be enough to vault the Jets into contention in a down AFC. A Decker/Graham/Marqise Lee/Jeremy Kerley offense would bear no resemblance to recent Jets offenses, and that’s a very good thing.

New England Patriots

Tom Brady will be 37 on opening day; Bill Belichick turns 62 in a few months. How valuable is a 2016 first rounder to them? While the Patriots still have young talent, the window is closing shut on the Brady/Belichick/Vince Wilfork era. The Patriots offense took several steps back without Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez (among others) in 2013, and signing Graham would provide an immediate fix. An offense built around versatile players like Shane Vereen, Graham, and Rob Gronkowski would ensure that the Patriots are Super Bowl contenders for the final days of the Brady era.

Cincinnati Bengals

Cincinnati is in excellent cap shape, which would allow the team to fit Graham into their cap space pretty easily. The Bengals don’t have many options with Andy Dalton — he’s too good to replace, but not good enough to build the team around. The solution? Surround him with the best supporting cast in the league. Jermaine Gresham has been a disappointment, and is in the final year of his contract. Cincinnati showed a desire for a two-tight end offense when the team drafted Tyler Eifert in 2013, but that set would work much better with Graham instead of Gresham. Even Dalton can direct a top-five offense with A.J. Green, Graham, Eifert, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Andrew Hawkins, and Giovani Bernard. After failing in the playoffs again, signing Graham might appeal as the type of bold move necessary to get out of first round purgatory. With a strong defense already in place, the addition of Graham would make Cincinnati second only to Denver for AFC favorite.

Green Bay Packers

The Packers have so many holes on defense that it’s hard to justify giving up two first round picks. But the Packers are in excellent cap shape and the temptation to pair Graham with Aaron Rodgers can’t be ignored. With Jermichael Finley’s career in jeopardy, Graham would both fix that hole and make the Packers instant Super Bowl contenders. An offense with Rodgers, Graham, Eddie Lacy, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and James Jones would be fascinating to watch and rival the scorched-earth 2011 edition.

Minnesota Vikings

After making the playoffs in 2012, the Vikings were the worst team in the NFC North in 2013. But the gap between last and first place was just three games, and Rick Spielman might view signing Graham as the key to turning around the franchise and saving his job. Minnesota had three first round picks last year, so perhaps they’d be less afraid of giving up two future ones. The Vikings aren’t in a championship window on paper, but the team must do something to get the most out of Adrian Peterson’s final few years. The future Hall of Fame running back turns 29 this month, which leaves only a couple of years to get him on the same field with a talent like Cordarrelle Patterson. Joining them with Graham might be enough to give the Vikings an elite offense regardless of who the quarterback is, and the hope would be that Mike Zimmer could take care of the defense. Minnesota just cut John Carlson, and a two-tight end offense with Graham and Kyle Rudolph, complemented with Peterson, Patterson, and Greg Jennings would instantly revitalize the team.

  • “[T]eams should be even less hesitant . . . ” more hesitant, right?

    • Chase Stuart

      You would be surprised that a fair amount of proof reading actually goes into most posts.

  • prowrestlingisstrong

    Jimmy Graham is a nice player but he is extremely limited in what he can do and would be a good fit on only a few teams. He is an awful and unwilling blocker, get a erased by physical defenses and is starting to breach his late twenties. He could be a force for teams with accurate quarterbacks that can buy time in the pocket and let his seam routes develop. The Patriots, Broncos, Cowboys etc… But to put him on a team that requires more blocking assignments from him and features more erratic quarterbacks he would an average player with a sprinkling of explosion plays. The Jets and Panthers would be awful fits for Graham’s skill set. I see Graham as basically a really big wide reciever. He is almost useless as a TE in the traditional sense.

    • Chase Stuart

      If Graham would be an awful fit for the Jets offense, what wide receiver or tight end would be a good fit?

      • GMC

        One that can play quarterback?

  • Sunrise089

    Comment – I’m not sure how seriously all of these options are supposed to be taken (Vikings, really?!), but if any of the good 2013 teams did pull the trigger I’d hope ownership would be smart enough to make the deal pre-draft, to lock in the low draft pick which should improve due to regression in the future. Adding Graham for upside would be great, but I can’t imagine Carolina for instance is more likely than not to out-perform their 2013 record even with Graham on the team.

    Question – Do big wide receivers age better than tight ends?

    • Chase Stuart

      The Vikings were included for two reasons: Peterson’s age and Spielman’s job security. Both of those factors make future picks less attractive to say, Rick Spielman.

      As to your other point, that only holds true if we assume that the talent in the 2015 draft is equal to the talent in the 2014 draft, and that there is no time value of draft picks. I don’t think either of those are true, so I would certainly advocate a team like Carolina wait until after the draft to sign Graham.

  • James

    How about the 49ers? I think they are supposed to be in good cap shape and can make up most of Graham’s contract by releasing Gore, they have lots of picks and usually pick late so they’ll be hurt less by losing two firsts, they’ll benefit some from hurting the Saints, and a slight improvement in team quality could be the difference between a bye and a wildcard.

    Of course, with Crabtree healthy and Boldin extended they have less need on offense, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable for them to consider it.

    • Chase Stuart

      I thought about the 49ers, but I decided that the move was just too rich for them to consider. I suppose one could argue their window is closing because they’re the 2nd oldest team in the NFL, but I think with Harbaugh and Kaepernick both being young they aren’t in a win at all costs mode. I also don’t think Graham is a great fit for the offense because of his weakness as a blocker, and with Davis/Boldin/Crabtree already out there, I’m not sure what role Graham would have.

  • Anthony

    Awesome article. The possibilities of a Graham trade are fascinating. As a Packers fan though I just know that Ted Thompson would never agree to do such a deal (as tantalizing as this tandem would be). Rodgers can make most guys look like studs (see Greg Jennings contract with Minnesota and soon to be Free Agent James Jones) so I hope the Packers take Eric Ebron and rebuild the defense with those picks.

    • Chase Stuart

      Yeah, Green Bay is a long shot, but the idea of teaming him with Rodgers certainly is tantalizing.

  • David

    As a Pats fan, I thought that if the Patriots could make the money work, and that may be hard to do, it’s a slam-dunk decision. They would be getting the best of both worlds at the TE position, replacing the void left by Hernandez AND getting Gronk insurance. They don’t need ANOTHER late first round pick. They make the payoffs every year and last year they traded out of the first round. I recall the Patriots were one of the younger teams in a FBP post about a month ago. I’m saying that, they already have a number of young starters growing into their roles (Dobson, Collins, Hightower, Jones).

    But I do like your Bengals scenario even more; good team, good cap room, and on the cusp of being a Super bowl contender. Cincy might be the best place for Graham.

    • Chase Stuart

      Yes, if I was the Patriots, I would do everything I could to give myself cap hell in say, 2017, but max out the cap the next 2-3 years. Giving Graham with a contract that is friendly now but has significant guaranteed money in 2017 and 2018 is one way to do that.

  • GMC

    Denver? The cap situation might be a little difficult to arrange but there is no team in the NFL that has a tighter Super Bowl window.

    • Danish

      Agreed. The window slams shut when Manning retires. In other words: VERY soon.

      However, Julius Thomas is basically 80% of Jimmy Graham at 20% of the price (both figures wild guesses, but you get the point).

      In general Graham will not be as valuable to an already great offense as he will to a middling-to-bad offense.

      • monkey

        I don’t know Danish, I mean, I understand what you’re saying in that the numbers Graham put up last year were just insane, but when you consider that Denver also had Demerius, Welker and Decker as targets, What Julius was able to do was VERY impressive, and the fact that he can at least block, and isn’t as prone to disappearing in big games, makes me personally believe that if I had my pick, I’d rather have Julius Thomas…hands down actually.
        And this is coming from a Seahawks fan who has seen that defense completely shut down both of those guys (as well as every other TE they faced like Tony Gonzales and Vernon Davis).

  • monkey

    Meh that wasn’t very clear…what I was trying to disagree with Danish was the idea that Thomas is 80% of Graham…I personally would disagree because Graham is soft, and doesn’t block. I would be more tempted to put it the exact other way around.
    Everything else that you said I agree with 😛

  • prowrestlingisstrong


    let me rephrase a little. Jimmy Graham would be a good fit on any team but I think the Jets giving up two firsts and 12.5 mil in cap space would be an awful use or resources for a player like Graham given what kind of offense they run. I feel the Jets offense would need a competent blockerto go with the receiving skills. A Kyle Rudolph or a Vernon Davis type would be an ideal system fit.

    Just found this place a few months ago and must give a thumbs up. It is so nice to find a corner of the internet for intelligent football conversation. I have learned a lot here. Thanks for the efforts.

    • Chase Stuart

      For most teams, giving up 2 firsts and 12.5M is a bad use of resources. But the intent here is to find a few teams where it might not be such a bad idea. For the Jets, I think the goal is to at least try to get away from ground and pound. Sure, Davis would be a great fit, but he’s not available. That said, a player like Graham would help transform the offense and give Smith one of the top weapons in the league. For a team that has arguably the worst set of weapons in the league, Graham is a pretty attractive option even if he isn’t much of a blocker.

      Glad you enjoy the site. We’re lucky to have some excellent commenters here, and the discourse is always very friendly.

  • josh

    him going to ATL would be sick. can the saints match offers or anything? or does a team auto get him if they agree to give up 2 1st rounders.